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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Barron's Booknotes
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Dickens wrote Great Expectations in weekly installments, each
a chapter or two long. Let's take a closer look at the novel,
reading it section by section, as it appeared originally. At the
end of each weekly number, stop for a moment to savor the
note of surprise, or suspense, or foreboding with which
Dickens has ended it-and imagine how you'd feel if you had to
wait another week to find out what happens next.


When Dickens first thought up the story of Great Expectations,
he described it to a friend as a "grotesque tragi-comic
conception." The elements of tragedy and comedy are tangled
together from this first chapter onwards.

Look at how Dickens introduces us to his main character and
narrator. The strongest points he makes are that the boy is an
orphan and that he has a vivid imagination. Because he has no
parents, Philip Pirrip has had to forge his own identity; he first
did this by naming himself Pip. He pictures the family he never
knew from their tombstones. He's a tragic figure of a lonely
little boy hanging around an empty cemetery, but at the same
time he's got a comical way of describing his imaginative

Dickens plunges quickly into his first scene-the incident on
which the whole plot is based. A sweeping view of bleak
marshland finally focuses on the boy, shivering with fear as
well as cold. Then, swift and unexpected, a violent figure
looms up from the graves. The convict is described in broken
sentences, disconnected glimpses that show how threatening-
and pitiful-he is. He barks sharp questions at Pip, and demands
food and a file to get the iron off his leg. Read the convict's
long speech to Pip; the short pressing phrases, the constant
repetitions, are like thumbs tightening on the boy's throat. Yet
when he talks about the vicious "young man" who is his
accomplice, we guess he's bluffing desperately. As Pip trots
away, we hear the convict mutter, "I wish I was a frog. Or an
eel!" He's only human.

Although Pip really is scared, Dickens lets little comic touches
keep bubbling up. When the convict turns Pip upside down, the
church steeple peeks out ludicrously beneath his feet. Pip,
thinking he has to be polite to this ruffian, keeps sticking
dutiful, irrelevant little comments into the dialogue. The
comedy, however, mostly works like hysterical laughter, to
emphasize the tension.

The convict speaks in a lower-class dialect-"pint" for point,
"wittles" for victuals (food)- with contractions and phonetic
spellings reminding us how he pronounces everything. Dickens
often uses dialect to show class distinctions. As you read,
notice who speaks dialect, and how these characters are placed
on the social scale.

As Pip looks back at the convict, the man seems small and
miserable, heading towards a silhouetted gallows. While the
sight of the gallows may make us feel sorry for him, it makes
Pip more terrified, for he imagines the convict as a dangerous
pirate risen from the dead. Pip, having frightened himself, runs
home in a panic. Remember how you felt when you were a
little kid, running from monsters in the dark?

The somber tone of this chapter now switches to tongue-in-
cheek irony. The mix of tragedy and comedy is reversed in the
next chapter; comedy is the major style, while subtle details
suggest how miserable Pip's life really is.

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Barron's Booknotes

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